Hong Kong’s transition from a ‘Zero-COVID’ success story to a city reeling with the highest Coronavirus mortality rate of any country or territory ever recorded was as swift as it was brutal. Only now, seemingly with the tacit approval of Beijing, is Hong Kong now making moves to change up its defeated pandemic strategy.
The shocking mortality rate has no doubt been made worse by the incredibly low vaccination rates amongst Hong Kong’s most elderly and vulnerable citizens. Until a few weeks ago, however, the elderly saw no reason to rush to get a vaccine.
Hong Kong had managed to keep the virus at bay with some of the toughest border restrictions in the world. Near misses where Covid found its way into the community were quickly stamped out and resulted in the restrictions being made even tighter.
By the point that Omicron eventually breached Hong Kong’s defences, the territory had squeezed homegrown airline Cathay Pacific to the point that the carrier was virtually grounded. Travel from nine countries including the United States and the United Kingdom was banned and some passengers were made to quarantine on arrival for three weeks.
It was this unscientific three week quarantine period that appears, however, to have been Hong Kong’s downfall in keeping the virus at bay. A virus-free traveller from Pakistan had been festering in hotel quarantine for weeks when a fellow traveller in another room spread Omicron along an under-ventilated corridor.
If the traveller from Pakistan had been released earlier, the thinking goes that Hong Kong could have avoided the disaster it is now facing.
Now, Hong Kong’s government has belatedly decided to loosen the travel restrictions that have left the territory so isolated.
Chief executive Carrie Lam announced at a press conference on Monday that the ‘Big Nine’ flight ban will be lifted on April 9. As well as the US and UK, flights will also be allowed from Australia, Canada, France, India, Nepal, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Passengers hoping to travel from these countries will still need to be fully vaccinated in order to be eligible to board a flight to Hong Kong and a negative COVID-19 test must be taken within 48-hours of departure.
Lam also announced plans to slash the quarantine period for inbound travellers to just one week, although travellers will still be forced to take multiple tests during their quarantine.
The relaxation will be welcomed by Hong Kong’s business community which has been increasingly alarmed at the exodus of young professionals from the city. The initial relaxation may, however, only serve to help expats escape the city as airlines rush back to serve the territory.
Social distancing rules within the community aren’t due to be relaxed until April 21 at the earliest and the whole process will take three months. A controversial mass-testing plan has, though, been ‘suspended’ which likely means that Hong Kong is no longer seeking to completely eliminated Covid and could learn to live with the virus… eventually.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.